The Novelist as Impersonator

My current novel-in-progress is about a deception, about someone assuming a false identity, which it strikes me is not so different from what authors of fiction are doing when they write from the point of view of their characters. As a novelist, you are impersonating one or more of your protagonists, taking on their identities, inhabiting their lives, infiltrating their world in a way that deceives readers into believing in them – or at least suspending for a while their knowledge that all this is an invention. 

Just as the character in my novel is pretending to be someone else (in this case for dubious purposes), when writing fiction, you have to ditch your own nature, your sense of self, and ‘become’ your character (note: I am not implying authors have dubious motives!) You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, someone else’s head – think as they think, act and react as they would, see everything through their eyes, whether or not you’re writing in first person. In my earlier fiction, I usually chose to write in close third person, while my last completed novel, Flying Blind (currently with an agent) is written in first person, as is the new novel I’m working on. It really comes to the same thing because either way, you are inside the head of your protagonist, writing from their point of view even if the pronoun used is she rather than I

Protagonists will have their unique backstories: formative influences and emotional histories that determine who and how they are. Personality traits, physical appearance, strengths and weaknesses, interests, likes and dislikes will differ from those of their creator and must be carefully built up. The characters may live in a different era or location; they may not be the same age or gender as the author. More dangerous territory for novelists these days is where a character is given another nationality, race or religion. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is an accusation to beware of. Likewise, stereotyping of a group to which you don’t belong.

If the novel has a long timespan, you may have to age with the protagonist. Flying Blind takes Margarethe from a young girl to very old age, in several different countries in a historical period of great flux in Europe, a period of two world wars and frequently shifting borders, not to speak of changing social mores. Not only the characters but also the world they move in must feel authentic. The story is based on the life of my grandmother but I knew her only in her later life in England, leaving scenes from her childhood and early years to be imagined. 

The Red Gene also has a span of nearly eighty years. We first meet Rose as a young woman in her twenties and follow her life till its end at over ninety. I had to envision her at different ages and in different situations, taking into account the changes in society over those years. Consuelo starts as a girl of six, continuing through marriage and motherhood to late middle age. Two of the three main characters, each of a different generation, were born in Spain: I had to get inside the heads of Spanish protagonists in changing political and social settings. Twenty plus years of living in Spain as well as my interviews with Spanish people were invaluable in making this convincing. 

In Secrets of the Pomegranate, as well as portraying the two sisters, Deborah and Alice, I was writing in the voice of Deborah’s son Mark, an immature twenty year-old dropout living in a cave in Granada’s Sacromonte; reacting to events as I imagined he might. My current work also has an immature (and troubled) teenager as one of the characters – a girl this time, growing up in England in the 80s. 

Authenticity in fiction has become a bit of a hot topic recently. Is it fraudulent to write as someone you are not? I don’t think so. I love creating characters different from myself. I love having to use my imagination, backed up by diligent research. As Monica Ali said when discussing the issue at this year’s Hay Festival, “Imagining other people’s lives and allowing people to empathise with them is what fiction writing is all about.”

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